My Lai, Thirty Years After

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England? I am silent for a moment, wondering if I’ve missed some important news event.

“You know,” she says, “the war?”

“The Revolutionary War?”

“Yes.”

I am amazed to be asked this question; I nearly burst out laughing. Does any American harbor resentment about the miseries of the Revolution even in the furthest recesses of his consciousness? England? I think fish and chips, dark beer, castles, and scandalous royalty. It occurs to me she is looking for a connection to My Lai.

I explain to her that the circumstances of the two wars are not comparable. I ask about the connection she’s attempting to make, and she mumbles vaguely about imperialism and war. She has seen too much propaganda, I think. In Vietnam, Americans are referred to as the imperialist aggressors.

We are close to My Lai, and I feel my stomach muscles start to tighten. What will I find there? Will I be cursed? Hated? Or am I shielded by time, gender, age? The Australians in back have begun to lather themselves with suntan lotion; here the sun can blister through No. 30 sun block in minutes. I am hoping the couple does not hate nie by the end of the day.

The car pulls into a long driveway and parks under the shade of a tree. To enter the My Lai monument site, we are each charged twenty thousand dong, just under two dollars. To say that the Vietnamese have learned to market the American war may sound cynical and defensive, but you can buy Zippo lighters and flak jackets at Ho Chi Minh City’s war-surplus market; you can buy compasses and rusting dog tags in every town along the coast from Ho Chi Minh City to Hanoi.

“I wait,” our driver says, urging us forward. A long sidewalk leads into an enormous concrete sculpture, though it is so far away I can’t quite make it out. I look away, unprepared to discover exactly what it is yet. My palms are clammy. I grin stupidly at the Australians. They are waiting for me to proceed. I am the expert here.

To my left is the grave of Mrs. Thong, her children, and two relatives. I read and reread the names on the stone marker, calculate the ages of the victims had they lived, compare them to my own twenty-nine years. We walk forward. I am all jumbled up, a curious mixture of emotion and numbness. Several stone statues are lined up along the sidewalk. These sculptures, all but the huge one in the distance, were done by a group of artists in Hanoi.

One stone woman falls forward, her hand clutching her stomach, a replica of a famous picture taken by Ronald Herberle, the American photographer who was there that day. Another woman kneels, her hair blowing in the wind as she falls sideways, one arm outstretched. Opposite her, down a thin sidewalk bordered by yellow wildflowers, is the museum. A woman leans in the doorway, arms crossed, waiting for us. She wears long brown pants and a pink long-sleeved blouse, both of light, silky material. I am amazed at how the Vietnamese withstand the heat. Women ride bicycles covered head to toe, saving their skin from the sun, complete in elbow-high gloves and hats. In the mountains of Da Lat, where it may get down to seventy-eight degrees fahrenheit at night, people wear winter coats, sweaters, scarves, and knit caps.

The woman greets us in flawless English. Like most Vietnamese, she speaks quietly, gently. She welcomes us to My Lai and tells us she is a guide and will show us around. No other visitors are here, and the silence is a sound all its own. The museum is maybe ten by twenty feet. She asks where we are from.

“Australia,” my companions say together, perhaps a little too proudly.

“America,” I say, shifting my weight from foot to foot, “the States.”

She smiles at us, looking at me a second longer than the Australians, though this may be my imagination. First she explains that we need to look at a map of the area to understand how the Americans planned the attack.

“Planned?” I ask her.

She nods. “Yes, the massacre was planned.”

I hear the Australians gasp slightly. The woman continues to smile.

Planned? How could it have been planned? A recon patrol, perhaps, was planned, maybe even a search and destroy mission: Burn the hamlets, interrogate the villagers, and all that. But a massacre? Strategies are planned. Brutalities just happen. My heart is thumping. She shows us how My Lai is actually a series of villages: My Lai 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6. She points to the hill near My Lai 4 where the Americans were based. She explains how the Americans knew the people of My Lai 4, how the soldiers would come to play with the children. No one planned this, I think. Can’t moral men do immoral things? Don’t right men do wrong things? People are dead, I remind myself. What if it was my family? My little brothers, my aunts, my father? Wouldn’t I be entitled to a little more anger, a little more of whatever it takes to live with tragedy?

The guide smiles and says the map will show us how the Americans planned the massacre. “Planned?” I ask.

“So you can see,” she says softly, “how this wasn’t an accident.”